Special Investigator (1936)

US / 61 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Louis King Scr: Louis Stevens, Thomas Lennon, Ferdinand Reyher Story: “Fugitive Road” (1935; New York Herald Tribune) by Erle Stanley Gardner Cine: Edward Cronjager Cast: Richard Dix, Margaret Callahan, Erik Rhodes, Owen Davis Jr, Ray Mayer, Harry Jans, Joseph Sawyer, J. Carrol Naish, Sheila Terry, J.M. Kerrigan, Jed Prouty, Russell Hicks, Boothe Howard, Si Jenks.

Special Investigator - 0 opener

Chicago shyster Bill Fenwick (Dix) has just won his latest case, defending mobster Bennie Gray (Rhodes)—a result that brings him both a reproof from the judge for being as bad as the criminals he defends and a fat check from Bennie—when his kid brother George (Davis, whose performance, despite his billing, lasts mere seconds), an investigator for the DoJ, is gunned down by gangster Eddie Selton (Naish). Selton is wounded in the exchange, but escapes.

Grieving, Bill realizes the error of his ways, telling his mercenary fiancée Judy Taylor (Terry): “I’m not a lawyer, Judy. I’m what crooks call a mouthpiece.” To her dismay he refuses the next mobster case lined up for him by the friendly Bennie—the Joe Costello case—and nixes their engagement; she’s none too worried, especially after he gives her Bennie’s $15,000 check as kiss-off . . . and even more so because she’s already seeing more of Bennie than strictly she oughter.

Bill gives Bennie no hint that he’s decided to start cooperating with George’s old DoJ boss, Inspector Perkett (Hicks), and as a result Bennie gives him two useful tips—first, that Selton’s gang has half a million bucks’ worth of gold bullion that it needs to launder and, second, that a well recognized way of getting hot bullion onto the market is to “discover” ore in some long-abandoned shaft and, in effect, “mine” the gold all over again.

Accordingly, the next we see is Bill arriving in the small Nevada town of Quartzburg just outside of which, on the Gold Bar Ranch owned by Jim Plummer (Sawyer), a mine long thought completely dug out has suddenly revealed a fresh seam of gold. Pretending he’s called Richard “Dick” Galt, Bill befriends local gas-station owner Hiram Simpson (Jenks) and the self-styled mayor, Judge Plumgate (Kerrigan), and sets himself up as a lawyer who can handle title claims for prospectors.

Grover (Howard), his contact with Perkett, urges him to find some way of getting onto Plummer’s heavily guarded ranch and if possible ingratiating himself with Plummer to find out what’s going on. At first there seems no way, but then there arrives in Quartzburg on the bus Virginia Selton (Callahan), claiming to be Plummer’s sister but in fact Eddie’s.

Bill’s interest in her is immediately a whole lot more than professional. After trying to chat her up at the gas station—her response is glacial—he follows her to nearby Reno, where she’s gone to fetch someone off the plane. That person proves to be Dr. Vic Reynolds (Prouty), whom she’s summoned to tend to her brother, but before his delayed plane arrives Bill has the chance for a double-entendre-laden conversation with her in the airport casino. And, while she’s greeting Reynolds, he siphons much of the gas from her car—so that she’ll run out halfway home and she and Doc Reynolds will need to accept a lift from the young lawyer who just happens to be driving by . . .

Special Investigator - 1 Eddie Selton is none too pleased to see sister Virginia

Eddie Selton (J. Carrol Naish) is none too pleased to see sister Virginia (Margaret Callahan).

That gets him onto the Plummer ranch all right, and once there he tries to smooth-talk Plummer into having a legal consultation with him the next day. But Plummer’s suspicious and one of Plummer’s thugs, Cy Adams (Jans), is sure he’s seen “Dick Galt” somewhere before. Although Selton is certain his sister’s new beau is okay, Plummer does a sort of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” speech and, sure enough, another of his thugs, Dutch (Mayer), tries to snipe Bill when he and Virginia are out riding; he misses Bill but hits Virginia’s horse. As Doc Reynolds patches up Virginia, Selton has the last contest of authority with Plummer that he’ll win. Next time it’ll be Plummer saying, “I’m the wheels of this mob from now on.”

Special Investigator - 3 Plummer isn't fooled by 'Dick's' smooth talk

Plummer (Joseph Sawyer) isn’t fooled by the smooth talk of “Dick” (Richard Dix).

Virginia’s well enough to go dancing with Bill in Reno that night, which is fine by him because he knows Perkett’s men are going to raid the ranch at midnight and wants Virginia out of the way when that happens. Alas, while they’re dancing in a Reno casino, who should walk in but Bennie Gray and the gold-digging Judy Taylor, who recognize Bill at once. Witnessing this are Cy and Dutch, who at Plummer’s instruction have followed Bill, and the proverbial is all set to hit the fan . . .

Special Investigator - 2 Bil spots Virginia in the casinoBill (Richard Dix) is all eyes for Virginia in the casino.

This B-movie packs a surprising amount of well executed plot into its short running time, and overall displays little of the budgetary constraints that must have been in force. None of the cast merely goes through the motions, and there are pleasing cameos from the minor characters, such as Jenk’s Hiram, Kerrigan’s Plumgate and notably Prouty’s pudgy middle-aged Doc Reynolds. The latter’s reaction on discovering that Virginia’s car has broken down in the middle of both the night and nowhere is quite priceless: hope flares in his piggy little eyes, and he’s quick to reassure her that he’s perfectly game to sit it out here with her ’til morning.

Special Investigator - 4 Plummer asccuses Virginia of being a stoolie

Plummer (Joseph Sawyer) accuses Virginia (Margaret Callahan) of being a stoolie.

That’s what makes this movie really quite a large cut above many of its rivals of the time. There are a few great comedic moments and characters, but in no way does this ever degenerate into the kind of lowbrow comedy “thriller” that was then so prevalent—complete with sequences of dimwit clowning and someone like Chester Morris hamming it up for the camera. Director Louis King—whose ordinary forte was Westerns (and the movie does indeed have a Western flavor)—takes his tale seriously, and his cast follows suit. While the movie’s by no means as bleak as a full-blown noir might be, it’s certainly—despite those moments of humor—as dark as some. And, although there’s the predictable romantic ending, it comes immediately after the final tragedy has been played out.

Special Investigator - 5 SEE TEXT

Eddie (J. Carrol Naish): “You ratted on me—the way they’re all rattin’ on me, the way everybody’s rattin’ out on me.”

Special Investigator - 6 the truth out, Bill comforts Virginia

Bill (Richard Dix) comforts the bereft Virginia (Margaret Callahan).


11 thoughts on “Special Investigator (1936)

  1. Obviously Dix and Naish are quality performers, and the director, as you note has made his mark in the western genre. Have not seen this short feature, but your generally favorable appraisal, superbly written makes a solid case. I continue to be amazed at the number of films that few people have seen that you are bringing attention to. You certainly are doing a service for neglected cinema in a very big way.

    • Many thanks for the kind words as usual, Sam! What surprises me is that some of these movies are obscure. This one, for example, is no great masterpiece but, in addition to its cast, has an Erle Stanley Gardner story as its basis. Yet, as you imply, it seems to have dropped out of sight almost altogether.

  2. I’m so appreciative that your blog continuously introduces me to new films, directors (even actors). In fact, I might have to stop reading as my watchlist is becoming unmanageable 😉

    • Thanks for the kind words! I think a lot of the time it’s not so much that the older movies are especially obscure (often enough I realize halfway through that I’ve seen them before) as that no one has ever written much about them — or at least, if they have, it’s been for contemporary magazines/newspapers that are now hard to find.

    • Many thanks for dropping by!

      I agree with Sam Juliano’s comments re: your reviving forgotten cinema.

      Sam’s knowledge of movies is so extraordinary that I feel quite flattered every time I discover I’ve posted here about a movie he’s not familiar with!

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